Keeping Your Marriage Strong While Dealing with Mental Illness
Look around and you can see it. Even if you aren’t fully aware, it almost certainly exists within your family, friends, and/or co-workers. Helplessness, hopelessness, and real physical pain are a result of it. Socially it can be detrimental, in a marriage it can be damaging. Whether it manifests in sadness, anxiety, anger, or irritability it can negatively affect all aspects of a person’s life. Peace can feel out of reach and true healing can seem even further. Just in these few sentences, there is no doubt you can guess the topic I’m alluding to—Mental illness. Mental illness in marriage can cause serious problems. It can also be another reason to draw closer and rely more on each other. We want to dive into this complex topic and offer ideas of ways to regain hope and add strength to your marriage.
In a marriage where mental illness exists, there are obviously two very different experiences being had simultaneously. For the mentally ill spouse, the suffering that comes from living with a mental illness is a unique and often indescribable experience. While the challenge of loving someone with a mental illness may be equally painful, but in a different way. Let me also acknowledge that every experience is different, just as every marriage is different. Maybe not all of the ideas contained in this post apply or are helpful in your situation; however, after talking with numerous people regarding their experience dealing with mental illness in their marriage, there are likely at least a few ideas given here that can help your marriage, as they have helped countless others. Although it is overused, it is nonetheless true that having a good marriage takes work. And living with a spouse with mental illness is no exception.
As previously stated, within a marriage where mental illness of some form exists, the experience of each spouse is very different. Which is why in this post we have outlined ideas for you, if you struggle with mental illness, as well as ideas for you, if your spouse struggles with mental illness. Reading through both perspectives will be helpful because many of the ideas written for one spouse will also apply to the other. If you are feeling stuck and frustrated living with a spouse with mental illness, a step in the right direction can make all of the difference, and this is a good place to start.
If YOU Struggle with Mental Illness
Know that you are not alone. It has been cited that nearly half of Americans will suffer from some sort of mental illness in the course of their lifetime. This is an eye-opening statistic. Literally millions of people have been where you are and have felt your disappointment, helplessness, fear and frustration. A large portion of those people exist in marriages—strong, sensitive, safe marriages.
Prevent emotional challenges from resulting in unhealthy thoughts. If you have fallen victim to unhealthy thinking, this is a great place to start. Improvements can be made and disciplined, intentional efforts can help change the course of thoughts. Unhealthy thoughts lead to guilt. This guilt is a suffering that is all too familiar to those with mental illness. Perceiving the negative effects of your illness and the impression they leave on your life, your marriage, or your family can lead to awful guilt. The suffering you feel from these unhealthy thoughts spiral downward, unless you put an intentional stop to the guilt that is dragging you down. One major reason you should put a stop to the downward, deteriorating thoughts is because mental illness is not your choice. It is not your fault.
Get all the help you can. This likely means getting help from a therapist or getting the correct dosage of medication from a medical doctor. Taking this step is a proactive way to strengthen yourself and therefore your marriage. Choose to see this step as progress and a point of pride in your bravery and commitment to feeling well again. In the same way that you would shower sympathy to someone diagnosed with a visible physical illness like Parkinson’s disease or diabetes, care for yourself in that same way. Small victories are still victories and setbacks don’t change your overall progress if you continue to work toward wellness.
Have hope. If right now even that seems like too much to ask of yourself, try to have the desire to have hope. Hopefulness is a crucial enzyme for change. Hope multiplies and spreads when given any drop of nourishment. On the good days, or in the good moments, mindfully recognize them. Soak them in and share them with your partner. A victory is a victory, no matter how rare or how small. Train your mind to recognize these and use them as fuel for hope.
Don’t give up. Be willing to keep trying—to endure. This often means accepting help, or even harder yet, asking for help. Encourage yourself to change what you can, and push through the bad parts. Bad days, weeks, and months come, but recognize that only you can decide to keep trying. Any effort you put into becoming better results in some positive change even if you can’t immediately see it, or if it doesn’t seem to last. Keep trying.
If Your SPOUSE Struggles with Mental Illness
Make sure both of your basic needs are met. When it comes to living with a spouse with mental illness, you need to take care of your body so that you can help your spouse take care of theirs. You need food, sleep, and a safe environment. Before either of you try to jump in and deal with the complexities of mental illness, you both need to have this foundation of wellbeing. If you are not sleeping, your brain is not functioning the way it normally would. This can cause poor decision-making, decreased ability to control emotions and a lack of problem-solving skills. Only after you both have your basic needs met, can change and strengthening begin.
Don’t wait. If you see that something isn’t quite right, don’t wait to take action. When everyday function is interrupted, don’t wait to request help.
Be willing to be uncomfortable. When you are helping someone with mental illness, you need to be willing and prepared to be uncomfortable in order to make the changes necessary. The idea of change needs to be less uncomfortable than what you are currently experiencing. People will generally go out of their way to avoid uncomfortable situations and feelings; however, avoiding things that are uncomfortable, also avoids change. Fear and self-doubt can keep a person living a life of unhappiness and mediocrity. It is only when we choose to stretch and challenge ourselves that change can occur, which is why it is imperative that if you have a mentally ill spouse, you are willing to get uncomfortable – together.
Fight for them. Get on their side, and stay there. Living with a spouse with mental illness will require that you help them recognize that they cannot do it alone. Your spouse is going through something hard, and this is going to be hard for you too—but you’re on the same team. You both need to be willing to do things for the ultimate goal of becoming stronger people separately, and within your marriage. When they are in a low place, it is your job to support them through that, not lose yourself in frustration. It will take time, and time for yourself, but as you take on the role of trusted advocate, you will feel yourselves growing together, rather than apart.
Don’t let archaic beliefs get in the way. The notion that a simple choice to change your attitude can cure your mental illness is long gone. Simply squaring your shoulders and choosing happiness does not cure any diagnosed mental illness. If you have never suffered from a mental illness, it can be hard to relate, BUT always remember that your inability to relate in no way lessens the reality of their mental illness. That one time you were down, but picked yourself up a short while later by sheer grit and determination is not applicable and does not apply to mental illnesses. While you may be able to push through the pain of a twisted ankle, breaking your ankle is a much different experience and recovery process. So be careful with your mentally ill spouse, while you may not be able to empathize you can most certainly always sympathize.
Keep seeking a solution. There is hope and happiness ahead. If you can’t feel that now, keep pushing, and keep working on finding a solution. Educate yourself. It truly takes work, knowledge, and awareness to get where you both want to be. Fight through the discouragement and continue to try new things. Whether it’s a change in their therapist, seeking new medication, researching different treatments, or encouraging them to get out of their comfort zone—trying meditation, yoga, or a new exercise plan. Keep looking and keep working toward the goal of wellness. BUT, of course, realize that it is not in your power, and it is not your responsibility to solve this. You can support and help, but you can’t solve it on your own.
Do’s and Don’ts. Don’t say to your mentally ill spouse: “Snap out of it!”, “What do you have to be so depressed about?”, “Stop being so lazy”, “Just take better care of yourself.” Do say: “I care about you”, “You’re not alone”, “I can’t really understand what you’re going through, but I’m here for you.”
It is common for a marriage to struggle because a person struggling with mental illness, and especially depression, often feels nothing but emptiness and pain. In this case, professional help is needed, but special help from a spouse is also needed. Recognize your partner’s unbearable suffering and choose to frame your thoughts to say, “The person I love is suffering to the point that they cannot return my love and positive actions, but that doesn’t change the effort and love that I will offer.” This is no small feat—for either of you. Utilizing the ideas here and implementing your own solutions can change your marriage. Rely on each other, support each other, reflect often on what your spouse may be feeling and thinking during this time, and most of all don’t give up on each other.
If you are looking for additional resources for dealing with mental illness, the following pages could be of help to you:
- Mental Health America
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Digital Resources for Mental Health
We also have a post written about Helping a Spouse with Depression, as well as a post dedicated to Understanding Postpartum Depression which are also great resources.
Good points in the article but what do you do if your mentally ill spouse will not try to care for themselves (will not follow dr orders), says hurtful things to you repeatedly, then later explains it is because of their mental illness? At what point do you say, enough is enough? 10 years? 15 years? More?
I love your ideas but I think there is something to be said for setting appropriate boundaries, a lesson that took me a very long time to learn. We are not responsible for our spouses mental health or happiness.
Clarissa, you are completely right. Boundaries are extraordinarily important. Thank you for taking the time read and respond. The situation you described sounds especially difficult and exhausting. Every person and every marriage is very different. What works for one couple may not work for another. Often, solutions that worked for a period of time stop working. Dealing with mental illness in a marriage is certainly a fluid process. While all of the suggestions listed in the post will not work or apply to every couple, we tried to give several ideas and supplemental resources hoping that readers struggling with circumstances like you mentioned may find something new to try, or be reminded of something that worked to some extent in the past. At the very least, we wanted to write a post for readers to know that this struggle is more common than we acknowledge and they are not alone.
I have just now read this article and the comments. the comments are 5 years ago now. Your comment is what mine is today. How have things been going for you. My experience is just now beginning, or at least finally came to a point that it was recognized as mental illness and not just the same tired argument month after month for more years than I care to remember. I just wonder if that is what yours was like and how you have managed since you commented. Are you still hanging in there? Will you even be aware of my comment to your comment?
What a great resource, Lauren!! xoxo
Great post Lauren! Mental Illness is a struggle for everyone whether we go through it, or we know others who suffer. Empathy and understanding are key for everyone getting through! I know this article will help many people!